The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
SINCE the beginning of the nineteenth century science and technology have been playing a greater and greater rôle in shaping the lives of individuals, communities and nations. This has been true particularly in the West, where economic, social and political institutions and customs have been largely transformed by technological advances based on scientific accomplishments. Economic, social, political and spiritual values all still play their independent parts in creating the pattern of modern civilization. Nevertheless, running through nearly all of the complex mechanism of modern living are strands of technological advance which run back to the knot of some major scientific discovery. It is only reasonable to assume that this process will continue. If so, our ways of living and the direction of world affairs 10 to 20 years from now will be materially affected by what is being done or not done in the industrial development and engineering laboratories at the present time. Similarly the shapes of things a half-century hence will depend a great deal on what is going on in the pure science research laboratories now.
All these truisms about science and technology in the West apply to the Soviet Union. Perhaps they have not applied for quite so long a time, but there can be no doubt that the powerful Soviet state confronting the world today is based on substantial accomplishments by Soviet scientists and educators as well as on effective performance by Soviet engineers and technologists. Beyond this, it is clear that the future balance of world power will depend to a considerable extent on Soviet success or lack of success in the international race for scientific knowledge and technological achievement. Knowledge of the main features of Soviet science--its traditions, ideology, organization and personnel-- may therefore enable us to assess some of the accomplishments of Soviet science and its hopes for the future.
Science was introduced into Russia by Peter the Great. Impressed by scientific demonstrations on his Western travels, he brought back to St. Petersburg a number of scientific curios and sketched a plan for the organization of science. In 1725, a year after his death, his successor, Catherine I, founded the Imperial Academy of Sciences. It consisted of a group of scholars, a scientific museum and a secondary school. The scientists themselves had to be imported from the West, since Russia at that time had none. They were well chosen; among them were the Swiss, Leonhardt Euler, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, and several of the Bernouilli family, internationally known scientists, along with others of less illustrious name. When a sufficient group of native scholars had been trained, a reaction against their foreign teachers developed under the leadership of the genius of eighteenth century Russian culture, Michael Lomonosov.
The development of science in the latter half of the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century did not produce a large number of outstanding Russian scholars. Yet the names of Mendelcev (the discoverer of the periodic system of chemical elements), Lobachevski (the founder of the non-Euclidean geometry), and Pavlov (the formulator of the concept of the conditioned reflex) are now part of the world's cultural heritage. There were others, such as the physicists Jacobi, Lenz and Lebedev; the mathematicians Kovalevski, Chebyshev, Liapunov, Markov; the chemists, Markovnikov, Butlerov, Menshutkin, Beilstein, Chugaev, Reformatski; the biologists Kovalevski, Vinogradski, Pavlovski, Mechnikov, and Bekhterev, whose discoveries helped in the development of some aspect of science and whose work is valued by specialists in their fields.
The many Russian inventories of that period whose "discoveries" recently have been publicized by the Soviet Government were mostly so localized that they not only did not affect the development of Russian technology but were not heard of in the West. The language barrier, ever present in the relationship of Russia with the West, helped to keep the latter ignorant of the work of these Russians. The Soviet régime, however, while doing its best to keep the cultural barrier between East and West, is very sensitive about the reputations of these "inventors" and points with exaggerated national pride to such discoveries as that of the steam engine by Palzunov, the electric arc for illumination by Yablochkov, the incandescent lamp by Lodigin and the radio by Popov.
Although these men had little influence on Russian scientific development, the twentieth century opened with a good deal of promise. There was a respectable though small Imperial Academy of Sciences, and several active universities (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev and Kazan) where scientific teaching and research were going on in a manner not inferior to that of comparable Western institutions. A small group of highly trained scientists and engineers had supplemented their excellent Russian education with studies at Western centers. Finally, Russian science was being strengthened by the availability of an unusual source of personnel--the Russian intelligentsia, that group of people socially uprooted by the economic changes taking place in nineteenth-century Russia whose general education and culture was as advanced as any in the West.
World War I, the Revolution and the havoc of the Civil War that followed dealt a telling blow to the intelligentsia. Persecuted by the rising proletariat, many lost their lives in the cataclysm of 1917-1923, and others left Russia to enrich the culture of many other lands. Science, which had been tolerated though not encouraged by the Imperial Government in its later days, gradually assumed an important rôle in the development of the Soviet state. The small, staid Imperial Academy of Sciences became the active, expanded U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. The four or five prominent universities spawned 33 new ones scattered across the expanse of the Soviet Union. It was decided to give a large number of people a scientific and technical education, and the small group of the intelligentsia that had survived persecution and avoided exile served as leaven for the creation of a new class of scientists.
Science comes into the Marxist scheme of things in a number of ways. In the Marxist thinking, the control of the state cannot be separated from the control of economic production. Technological advances change the economic balance and introduce new methods of production. Since scientists and engineers are responsible for technological advances, their activities must also be controlled. Several methods were tried by the Communist Party. The victorious "proletarian" régime tried immediately after the Revolution to make the scientist its slave, hoping in this way to guarantee its control of production and consequently continue to control the state. The attempt to make slaves out of the scientist and the engineer failed, in the Marxist view, because of the unreliable bourgeois background and Western leanings of the people in these professions. It was accordingly attempted to create a group of scientists from the proletariat. Although this was not entirely successful, Soviet scientists and engineers, together with other members of the Soviet intelligentsia, had by the time of the Second World War attained a position of prestige and economic advantage in Soviet society reflected in the common Soviet claim that the three pillars of the Soviet state are the workers, the peasants and the intelligentsia.
Marxism also affects science in a more subtle way through its philosophy of science. To its adherents, Marxism is a total philosophy and as such includes a philosophy of science. Marx, Engels and Lenin thought that they themselves were scientists and laid down rules to govern scientific thought which were embodied in the philosophy of dialectic materialism. The philosophy of dialectic materialism was not only formulated by people who did not know modern science, but is also full of contradictions. It is a materialistic philosophy emphasizing the overriding importance of the material aspect of nature. On the other hand, in its dialectic approach (through what the Marxists call "the three subsidiary laws of change," "negation of the negative" and the "transition of the quantitative to the qualitative change") it emphasizes idealism. For more than a decade after the Revolution Soviet philosophers argued as to the proper balance between these two components of their philosophy. Their conclusions were often decisively influenced by the dictates of party leaders, and as a result the chair of Marxist philosophy at the universities became a perilous one to hold. Eventually, in the Stalinist society, the Marxist dialectic materialism was replaced by a Stalinist philosophy of science whose main tenets were: do not be an idealist; make your research useful for building up the new Soviet state; criticize others and yourself; do not be subservient to the West; and honor your Russian scientific forebears.
Through its party functionaries, its Marxist professors of philosophy and its security officers, the state keeps a close watch at all educational and scientific institutions for possible "deviations" among staff members. Scientists who have had close personal ties with Western scientists are particularly suspected. Those whose work has been translated into English are invariably scrutinized for idealism, subservience to the West and neglect of Russian scientific forebears. This activity culminated in the famous genetics controversy and in the "reëxamination" of the various branches of science which followed.
Science in the Soviet Union is highly organized and well financed by the government. The main administrative agency is the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, which occupies the key position in the organization, development, planning, execution and financing of science in Russia. This self-perpetuating organization is composed of 150 full members and 250 associate members, drawn not only from all fields of natural sciences but also from other fields such as philosophy, history, economics and law. The Academy is divided into the following sections: physics-mathematics, chemistry, geology, biology, engineering (technical sciences), literature, language, economics and law, history and philosophy. Election to membership is preceded by wide publicity. At the election last October, the first in seven years, 199 new academicians and associate members were inducted. This marked a significant stage in the life of the Soviet science, indicating that a new generation of Russian scientists has become available to establish firm control over the Academy, which for some time contained a relatively high percentage of scholars trained under the Imperial régime.
The president of the Academy is a man of high prestige in the Soviet Union, elected by the Academy for a five year term and holding a rank equivalent to that of a major cabinet minister. His portrait often appears in newspapers and magazines: and his prominence is attested by his inclusion in the group of the 25 Soviet leaders who gather on Lenin's tomb for the celebration of the October Revolution. The present president of the Academy is Alexander Nikolaevich Nesmeyanov, a member of the Communist Party, born in 1899, who studied organic chemistry under the dean of Russian organic chemists, Zelinski, at the Moscow State University. His scientific work has been in the field of organo-metallic compounds, of which tetraethyl lead used in gasoline is a good example. He was elected president of the Academy in 1951 on the death of Sergei Ivanovich Vavilov. Since 1947 Nesmeyanov has been chairman of the Stalin Prize Committee, Chancellor of the Moscow State University, Vice-President of the Supreme Soviet of the R.S.F.R., member of the Moscow City Soviet and of the World Peace Committee.
The Academy carries on its research work in a number of institutes, most of them centered in Moscow and Leningrad. The institutes, whose number has been relatively stabilized in recent years at about 60, employed about 6,000 scientific workers in 1949, and about 14,000 workers in administrative and service functions. A representative list of the names of the institutes gives an indication of their activities: The Institute of Physical Problems, the Institute of Physical Chemistry, the Geophysical Institute, the Radium Institute, the Institute of Genetics. These institutes are the élite guard of Soviet science, well equipped with apparatus, both imported and of Soviet manufacture, and attracting the best-trained Soviet scientists. The findings of a large amount of creditable scientific work are published by them, and these results are available outside the Iron Curtain. Research is also carried on at the major universities of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, etc., and there is close liaison between the universities and the institutes. There is also a very determined effort to organize scientific research in the outlying sections of the Soviet Union through branches of the Academy of Sciences and academies maintained by the various Soviet republics. The number of sophisticated scientific articles coming from centers far removed from Moscow testifies to the widespread distribution of highly-trained scientific personnel. In addition to these research institutes and the laboratories of the universities, research organizations are set up and controlled by the Ministries of Defense, Heavy Industries, etc. The Academy of Science exerts a powerful influence over the whole administration of Soviet science: it poses the key problems to institutes, approves their programs, appropriates the financial support, reviews each year the accomplishments of the various projects, and publicly reprimands institutes and individual academicians for failures in assigned work.
The Soviet scientist enjoys marked economic advantage over his fellow citizen. Judged by Soviet standards he is very well paid. If he is elected to membership in the Academy, he receives a monthly bonus, a good flat in Moscow, a fine country home in the Academy village, an automobile and other privileges. Scientists doing research at the universities and the institutes receive a higher financial compensation than those in industry. Every attempt is made to attract the best young men and women into scientific and technological work.
Exchange of scientific information has long been recognized as a necessary mechanism for the rapid developent of scientific knowledge. This is admitted, at least to a limited degree, by the Soviet Government. The Academy publishes about 30 journals. Their top scientific journal is the Dokladi (Reports) of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Science and its four-page articles reporting original investigations indicate the broad scope of Soviet scientific work: in 1952 it contained 250 articles on physics alone. The other journals report in more detail the completed investigations as well as the proceedings of the numerous scientific conferences held in the Soviet Union. Most of these journals are regularly received in the United States. In September 1947, the Soviet Union discontinued the practice of publishing scientific work in other languages than Russian. Few Western scientists know the Russian language, and attempts to make results of Russian scientific work available to them have not been too successful.
The Soviet scientists are, on the other hand, very well informed about what is happening outside the Iron Curtain. Almost all important scientific books are translated into Russian and are given a wide distribution at low cost. At least four journals are devoted to the presentation of new developments in the various branches of science and these report fully and promptly on Western scientific results; anyone who reads them gets a very good picture of the status of Western science.
The Soviet Government lays great stress on education, especially technical and scientific education. Compulsory free education in the so-called seven year school is given to all children from the ages of seven to 14. In all the larger population centers there are ten-year schools that complete the secondary education at age 17. There is a slight fee for the three additional years of secondary education. An entrance examination in several school subjects, Russian, and a foreign language must be passed for admission to a university, of which there are 33, in addition to the 880 institutes of higher education. In 1951 there were about 6,000 professors in the Soviet Union, 25,000 assistant professors and about 1,200,000 students. The students in the universities are subsidized by the government on a merit basis. There has been considerable excitement in the Soviet press during the last several years about the construction of the new Moscow University in the Lenin hills just outside Moscow--a mammoth skyscraper, 850 feet high and more than a mile and a half in circumference. The central section, 37 stories high, will house the departments of geology, geography and mathematics, and a library of more than 1,000,000 volumes. Four 19-story wings will contain apartments for the staff and student dormitories, and other buildings outside the central block will be devoted to chemistry, physics, biology and administration. The departments of the humanities and social sciences will continue to be housed in the old University building near the Kremlin. With these new facilities, the Moscow University will be able to admit 5,000 students a year. The new university skyscraper which dominates the Moscow landscape is a symbol of pride of Moscovites in the Communist régime. We may take it as an indication of the importance that the Soviet state pays to scientific research and education.
There is strong competition for the university graduates, and it is reported that heads of industrial and research organizations attend the final oral examination of the university students to assess the merits of the candidates and offer positions. The best students are encouraged to continue their scientific work for advanced degrees at the universities and research institutes. It is an established fact, though not widely recognized, that the Russians use women far more extensively than other countries in their industry, agriculture and professions; the number of women scientists in the U.S.S.R. is many times that in the United States, and the Soviet state has recognized that women seem to have aptitudes which fit them better than men for certain types of scientific research.
A clear picture emerges from these facts about Soviet scientific and technological education. A larger and larger group of Soviet citizens is being given a scientific and technical education. Moreover, to the best of our knowledge, the education is sound in most fields. A new Soviet intelligentsia is being groomed to discharge the many technological tasks necessary for the advancement of a modern state. Scientific instruments can be bought and delivered overnight, but several years are required to build a scientific laboratory or an industrial plant; scientific and technological manpower is a product of decades. There is ample evidence that the Communist Party and the Soviet Government are aware of this factor of time, and they are doing their utmost to build up a large pool of highly trained scientific and technical personnel.
Soviet science has its weaknesses also, as the fantastic story of the genetics controversy reveals. This is one of the greatest mistakes made by the Communist Party, and one that stems naturally from Communist ideology. Genetics, a science that has been developing rapidly during the last 40 years, deals with the way inherited characteristics of plants and animals are transmitted from one generation to another and also with the way the organisms change their inherited characteristics. We have learned in the last 30 years that inherited characteristics are transmitted through genes arranged in a definite order in chromosomes, which are thread-like materials often visible in the light microscope and particularly apparent in the electron microscope. A knowledge of heredity is important not only as a clue to the basic life processes but also has immediate practical applications, for example in the development of better live stock and crops of higher yield and viability. These are major considerations for a state like Russia, where food has never been plentiful.
In the years following the Revolution, the Soviet Union had one of the best schools of genetics in the world. Its dynamic leader was Nicholas Ivanovich Vavilov, a scientist who had studied in his youth in England, had travelled widely on plant-collecting expeditions and had many friends in Western scientific circles. Nicholas Vavilov was placed by Lenin at the head of the Institute of Genetics and of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Vavilov proceeded to organize genetics research on a sound scientific basis and to develop new strains for Soviet agriculture: his scientific reputation is attested by his inclusion among the 50 foreign scientists honored with a Foreign Membership by the Royal Society of London. For some unknown reason, Vavilov's relation with the government deteriorated. A new prophet of genetics, Trofim Lysenko, appeared on the Soviet scene and promised Russian agriculture fast results. His Marxist ideological verbiage and his highly questionable scientific methods and findings received the blessing of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The full story of the struggle between the genetics science of Nicholas Vavilov and the pseudo-science of Trofim Lysenko is too long to present here, but we may note that in the end Nicholas Vavilov was displaced from his scientific posts and disappeared to an unknown death. Sergei Ivanovich Vavilov, the physicist, was a bystander in his brother's dramatic exit and, as the President of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, had the rather uncomfortable task of proscribing the friends and the disciples of his brother. In the Grand Soviet Encyclopaedia of which Sergei Vavilov was the chief editor there is no mention of Nicholas Vavilov. But though Lysenko triumphed, genetics died as a science in the Soviet-Union. Michurinism, a pseudo-science derived from Lysenko's theories, dominates Soviet agriculture. Time alone will tell how much the present woes of Soviet farming can be ascribed to the fatal decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in imposing its ideology on the genetics branch of science.
The Lysenko affair did not affect scientific and technological work that was obviously closely associated with the external security of the Soviet state. In the persons of Alexandrov, Kolmogorov, Khinchin and Pontriagin, Soviet mathematics has scholars of the highest caliber. Soviet physics is outstanding in the three main branches of nuclear work, low temperature investigations, and in studies of the solid state. Wechsler proposed a novel method of accelerating nuclear particles almost at the same time that McMillan did in this country. Cherenkov discovered a luminous effect of rapidly moving nuclear particles that bears his name and is studied extensively all over the world. Zavoiski, using modern radar methods, discovered electron paramagnetism in solids. The Soviet school of the chemistry of radioactive substances is of long standing. The Soviet physical chemist Semenov laid the theoretical foundations for the theory of explosions and nuclear processes. Soviet chemists seem to be concentrating their activity in the more technological fields of plastics, metal manufacture, insecticides, dyes and medicinals. Basic studies in the various branches of engineering are extensively reported in the Russian scientific journals. The geologists appear to be concentrating on exploration of the natural resources of the Soviet Union. Recently the various branches of the Academy and its institutes were called on to build canals, dams and irrigation systems as part of "the grand plan to transform nature" more recently whittled down in order to permit greater emphasis on consumer goods.
In short, we must not underrate the competence of Soviet scientists, nor ignore the fact that the Communist Party and the Soviet Government are spending large sums of money in building up laboratory facilities, encouraging scientific research and technical development and training personnel. This is a long-range program, successful completion of which will enhance the economic and military strength of the Soviet Union. The new leaders of Soviet science and engineering receive the best material comforts that the Soviet Union can offer. They will have increasing facilities for research and a large number of trained assistants. On the other hand, they will be wedded to an unsound philosophy of science which already has to its credit the death of the science of genetics in the Soviet Union; and the ideology of the Party may strike again. But in the meantime a strong and highly-organized system of science and technology is doing effective work.